If you want your website’s pages to show up on the first page of a competitive or popular search term, then you’ve got competition. Lots of it. But that isn’t necessarily bad news. In fact, your SEO competitors can be one of your greatest assets in boosting your search rankings and traffic. How? It’s all about finding out what they’re doing right through competitive analysis.
With competitive analysis, you look at what SEO strategies other websites in your market are using and use this knowledge to improve your own SEO efforts. You can build on your competition’s successes and learn from their failures.
If you’re thinking that this sounds a little like copying someone else’s homework, that’s not quite right. Good competitive analysis goes beyond simply replicating what other websites are doing. After all, if you copy someone else’s work, you’ll only generate content that Google and searchers are already familiar with – making it harder to achieve the same results as your competitors, and even more difficult to outrank them.
When you understand what’s working for your rivals, you can improve on these tactics and do even better yourself. With some smart research, you can also identify gaps that your competitors might have missed, giving you an opportunity to add unique value and rise above them in the rankings.
Who’s Your True Competition?
It may seem obvious, but you need to know who you’re going up against in the search engine results pages (SERPs) before you can perform any useful competitive analysis.
You probably already have an idea of your direct competitors – businesses that offer the same products or services as you. Make a list of all the competitors that you already know. This will be your starting point.
The thing is, though, that your direct business competitors aren’t always the same as your organic search competitors. There are most likely companies out there that aren’t in your specific niche, but still compete for the same search terms that you do. These are your SEO competitors, and finding out who they are is as easy as performing a Google search.
Analyzing Your Competitors on the SERP
To identify your SEO competitors, you have to turn to the SERP and figure out which search terms you want your pages to rank for. By searching for these keywords, you can see who else is ranking for the same queries.
Here’s a very quick way to pick some target keywords for your website. First, define your main business offering. This is what your brand is all about. Pick one or two products that your business offers or topics that it focuses on. The business offering that you settle on will be the main target keyword or phrase for your site.
If you’re finding it hard to narrow down your business objective, try asking some friends how they would search online for what your brand offers. And remember: your main business offering is not the same as your business name!
For example, say you run a business called Mike’s Vintage Bikes, where you sell classic bicycles. Your main business offering (and a good target search phrase) would be: “vintage bikes for sale”.
Good to know
The target keyword of your website’s homepage should include your business name or brand name. If you’re a local business that serves customers face-to-face, it’s also a good idea to include your main location.
Once you’ve picked your keywords and searched for them on Google, update your list with the domains of any new competitors that appear on the first page of the SERP. This will be the starting point for your competitive analysis.
Don’t Forget About Search Intent
It’s important to note that a SERP can often include results for multiple search intents, especially when a query is very broad. For example, a search query for “Chicago” might return results for both the city and the musical.
Good to know
Search intent is the main goal a user has when typing a query into a search engine. Most searches fall under one of four different intent categories. Learn more
If your page is about Chicago the musical, you should consider where pages related to this topic rank on Google. You might notice that the top search results for “Chicago” are all about the city, while pages about Chicago the musical appear much lower down.
The reason for this is because Google believes that the intention of people who search for “Chicago” is to find information on a topic (Chicago the city) which is different from the topic of your page (Chicago the musical).
If your page is targeting a search phrase that Google believes fulfils a different intent, you have two options. Either optimize the page for a more specific search phrase, such as “Chicago musical”. Or, continue optimizing it for your original search phrase (“Chicago”) with the understanding that no matter how much value your page offers, it can only rank after pages that Google believes answers the main intent of searchers; that is, those about Chicago the city.
If your page is about Chicago the musical, you should consider where pages related to this topic rank on Google. You might notice that the top search results for “Chicago” are all about the city, while pages about Chicago the musical appear much lower down.
The reason for this is because Google believes that the intention of people who search for “Chicago” is to find information on a topic (Chicago the city) which is different from the topic of your page (Chicago the musical).
If your page is targeting a search phrase that Google believes fulfils a different intent, you have two options. Either optimize the page for a more specific search phrase, such as “Chicago musical”. Or, continue optimizing it for your original search phrase (“Chicago”) with the understanding that no matter how much value your page offers, it can only rank after pages that Google believes answers the main intent of searchers; that is, those about Chicago the city.
Typically, the higher a keyword’s search volume, the harder it is to rank for it. This is why it’s often better to target specific, low-competition search terms – also known as long-tail keywords. By focusing on queries that are very long tail, uncommon or specific to your business, you’ll likely find it easier to compete for a higher position in the SERP.
Good to know
Found a new keyword opportunity, but don’t have any related content on your website? Check out your competitors’ pages first. They can show you what type of content might best suit the keyword and what’s already been written about the topic, so you can create something unique that has a better chance of standing out to search engines.
Taking a Closer Look at Your SEO Rivals
Once you’ve identified your competitors and analyzed how they are performing in the SERP, your next step is to visit their webpages. Once you’re there, look for things your rivals are doing right – so you can do them even better – as well as any gaps in their content strategy that you might be able to capitalize on.
This type of analysis is all about the types of content competitors are creating and how they make it accessible to their audience. When you analyze a rival’s webpages, here are some questions you can use as a guide.
How Big is Their Site?
Understanding the scale of a competitor’s site will help you know what you’re really going up against. You can do this by using Google’s “site:” operator, which allows you to see all the URLs the search engine has indexed for a given website.
To access the “site:” operator, simply type “site:” into Google Search and add your competitor’s website URL after it. Here’s what you’ll get (using another bicycle-focused example):
As you can see, the SERP gives you an approximate number of the pages that have been indexed for this one domain (about 219 in this instance), as well as a simple list of those individual pages.
You can use these results to understand at a glance what content appears on your competitors’ websites and the extent of that information. By quickly scanning the list of pages, you might be able to spot gaps in their material or find inspiration for your own website. And keep in mind that you’re looking to discover and innovate, not imitate.
What’s Their Content Like?
A website’s content can be a real goldmine for your competitive analysis. It shows you everything from what types of content your rivals are publishing and how often they’re publishing it to which keywords they’re targeting. Keep a close eye on these elements in particular.
Uniqueness of Content
To stand out in search rankings, your webpages need to offer visitors something they can’t find anywhere else. If your content just mirrors that of your competitors, chances are that search engines will filter it out of their results. That’s why it’s vital to pay attention to what rivals are writing about.
If you notice that a competitor is lacking material in a particular area, it’s a great opportunity for you to fill the gap with your own unique content.
On the other hand, if you find that competitors cover the same topics as you do, try and think of ways to offer unique value to your audience. Can you add content to your website that approaches the subject from a different angle or adds a fresh perspective to an existing discussion?
You can also look at the way other websites write page titles and descriptions – but don’t just duplicate what’s already been done. You want to understand what helps to draw in the target audience, then put your own spin on that formula so you stand out from the pack.
Media Use
Do your competitors include images, videos or widgets in their content? Using these media elements can really make a page pop and make for a richer user experience – something that search engines usually reward.
It’s worth paying attention to image alt text too. Descriptive alt text is key to making your website accessible to individuals who are unable to view the images themselves. Plus, good alt text can help your site achieve higher rankings by associating keywords with images.
Word Count
Bigger doesn’t always mean better. From an SEO perspective, the ideal length for a piece of content will vary depending on its topic, format and target audience. Taking a look at top-ranking competitors’ content can give you a better idea of what length you should aim for when writing pieces.
Make a note of the average word count of your competitors’ pages and compare it against your own. If you’re coming up short, then it’s time to start beefing up your content. On the other hand, if you notice that high-ranking pages tend to use shorter-form content and you’ve got lots of very long pieces, it could be a sign that searchers want something that’s quicker and easier to read, so consider adapting your writing accordingly.
Outbound Links
When you link to another domain from your website, this is known as an outbound link. They’re typically used to verify facts, confirm sources or share additional resources. Outbound links help search engines understand how different webpages relate to each other, and can also improve the credibility of your site.
If your competitors don’t use many outbound links, this is your chance to get ahead by adding more of them to your own pages (where it makes sense, of course). And when rivals do include links to external sites, follow the trail. They could lead you to useful resources or communities, or even provide inspiration for new sites to link to yourself.
How’s Their Site Design?
It’s not just the content on a website that matters; the way that site is laid out and structured is also important when it comes to ranking well on Google. When evaluating a competitor’s site, ask yourself the following:
What’s the overall site structure like? Is it easy and intuitive to move around the website?
How’s the general look and feel? Is the design clean and modern, or old and clunky?
Is their site mobile-friendly? When browsing on mobile, is any content blocked or hard to read?
Outbound Links
When you link to another domain from your website, this is known as an outbound link. They’re typically used to verify facts, confirm sources or share additional resources. Outbound links help search engines understand how different webpages relate to each other, and can also improve the credibility of your site.
If your competitors don’t use many outbound links, this is your chance to get ahead by adding more of them to your own pages (where it makes sense, of course). And when rivals do include links to external sites, follow the trail. They could lead you to useful resources or communities, or even provide inspiration for new sites to link to yourself.
How’s Their Site Design?
It’s not just the content on a website that matters; the way that site is laid out and structured is also important when it comes to ranking well on Google. When evaluating a competitor’s site, ask yourself the following:
What’s the overall site structure like? Is it easy and intuitive to move around the website?
How’s the general look and feel? Is the design clean and modern, or old and clunky?
Is their site mobile-friendly? When browsing on mobile, is any content blocked or hard to read?
Good to know
YouTube is the second most-visited site on the web after Google, and as such should deserve special consideration in your social strategy. If your rivals are in the habit of posting videos to YouTube, then you should strongly consider following suit. And if they aren’t, it could be a useful competitive differentiator for your brand.